Fantasy football rankings 2022: Top 10 breakout candidates to draft

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Fantasy football breakout candidates to draft in 2022 originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

One of the most important parts of building a winning fantasy football team is identifying players on the cusp of stardom.

These players have shown flashes of impressive talent and offensive production in previous years, but still have another level or two to reach. We call them breakout candidates. Lots of fantasy owners can identify the guys at the top of your league's draft. But championships are often won in the middle rounds where you take chances on players who will have an increased role, are in a better situation or a new team, among other factors.

Fantasy football rankings 2022: QB | WR | RB | TE | D/ST | K

Which players are likely to show huge improvement in 2022 and take their talent to higher levels? Check out our ranking of the top 10 breakout candidates in fantasy heading into the season.

10. Nico Collins, WR, Texans (Bye Week: 6)

Collins had a solid rookie season, finishing second on the Texans in receptions (33) and yards (446), along with one touchdown. At 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, Collins has the physical tools to be a very good wide receiver at the pro level. If he uses that size to create separation in the red zone, he could see a significant increase in touchdowns from last season. The expectation for him in 2022 is that he becomes the No. 2 option in the Texans passing attack behind veteran wideout Brandin Cooks.

Projected draft round: 14th

9. Trey Lance, QB, San Francisco 49ers (Bye Week: 9)

The 49ers, for better or worse, have given Lance the keys to the kingdom, thus ending the Jimmy Garoppolo era in San Francisco. It was going to happen sooner or later. San Francisco gave up a ton of capital to move up to the No. 3 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft and select the former North Dakota State star.

Lance didn't see much action as a rookie. He attempted only 71 passes in six games. He's still very raw and mostly an unknown from a fantasy perspective. But Lance has exciting talent, including a dual-threat skill set that should see him rack up plenty of fantasy points on the ground. He's athletic enough to take off and run for huge yards. Lance will have plenty of weapons, too, including wide receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk, plus elite tight end Goerge Kittle.

It might take Lance a few weeks to get going, but his potential upside is tremendous and worth taking a chance on late in your league's draft.

Projected draft round: 10th

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8. Joshua Palmer, WR, Chargers (Bye Week: 8)

Palmer has enjoyed an excellent training camp so far, and it's quite possible he sits No. 3 on the Chargers' wide receiver depth chart by Week 1. Palmer finished his rookie campaign strong, tallying a touchdown reception in three of the last five games. An increased role in a high-scoring offense led by elite QB Justin Herbert should result in much-improved stats for Palmer.

Projected draft round: 14th

7. Pat Freiermuth, TE, Pittsburgh Steelers (Bye Week: 10)

Who will be the next star tight end in pro football? Betting on Freiermuth isn't a bad gamble.

Freiermuth tallied 60 receptions for 497 yards and seven touchdowns in 16 games as a rookie last season. He caught four or more passes in eight of his last 10 games, and his size at 6-foot-5 and 258 pounds makes him a difficult cover in the red zone. He also blocks really well, so the Penn State product is on the field quite a bit.

Freiermuth should play a key role in a Steelers passing attack that could surprise in 2022. It wouldn't be surprising if Freiermuth reached 75-plus receptions, 700-plus yards and seven-plus touchdowns on 90 or so targets next season.

Projected draft round: 10th

6. Jerry Jeudy, WR, Broncos (Bye Week: 9)

Jeudy was on breakout lists before last season after a decent-but-not-great rookie campaign. The 2021 season was a tough one for Jeudy. He missed seven games due to injury, and when he did see the field his production (38 receptions, 467 yards and zero touchdowns) didn't impress.

The Broncos made a major upgrade at quarterback during the offseason by acquiring Russell Wilson from the Seahawks via trade. Wilson is a future Hall of Famer and still a top 10 player at his position. Jeudy should see an enormous uptick in his receiving stats with Wilson leading the offense.

Projected draft round: 6th

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5. Darnell Mooney, WR, Bears (Bye Week: 14)

Allen Robinson's departure makes Mooney the No. 1 wide receiver in the Bears offense. The 2020 fifth-round pick set career highs with 81 receptions for 1,055 yards and four touchdowns in 16 games last season. Better numbers should be in store for Mooney in 2022 with more targets and stronger chemistry with starting quarterback Justin Fields.

Projected draft round: 4th

4. Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Dolphins (Bye Week: 11)

Tagovailoa's career has been a bit disappointing so far. He's shown flashes of elite talent but hasn't put it all together for a full season. Don't be surprised if Tagovailoa shows massive improvement in 2022, and the main reason for that will be the talent around him.

The Dolphins made a major trade with the Chiefs to acquire elite wide receiver Tyreek Hill, who is one of the fastest and most difficult pass-catchers to cover in the league. Few players are capable of scoring on every single play, but Hill certainly can with his game-breaking ability.

Hill isn't the only fantastic weapon at Tagovailoa's disposal on offense. Jaylen Waddle had a spectacular rookie campaign with 104 receptions, 1,015 yards and four touchdowns in 16 games. He's only going to get better in Year 2, and the presence of Hill should prevent opposing defenses from frequently double-teaming Waddle. And we can't forget about Mike Gesicki -- one of the league's most underrated tight ends.

The Dolphins have done a great job surrounding Tagovailoa with top-level talent at the skill positions. They also hired an offensive-minded head coach in Mike McDaniel. Everything is in place for Tagovailoa to have a breakout season and lead Miami back to the playoffs.

Projected draft round: 1th

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3. Travis Etienne, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars (Bye Week: 11)

Etienne missed his entire rookie season because of a torn ACL. If healthy, Etienne figures to play a massive role in the Jaguars offense alongside his former college teammate and franchise quarterback Trevor Lawrence.

Etienne has even more value in half-PPR and full-PPR leagues because of his pass-catching ability. He tallied 85 receptions over his final two seasons at Clemson, in addition to 2,518 yards and 34 touchdowns on the ground during that span.

Etienne should get a heavy workload, which could make him a strong RB2 and potentially a top 10 fantasy running back in 2022 if he plays close to a full slate of games.

Projected draft round: 3rd

2. Derek Carr, QB, Raiders (Bye Week: 6)

Is it weird to have Carr on this list when he's been in the league eight years? Maybe, but let's consider a few factors. He's thrown for 30 or more touchdowns only once. He's thrown for more than 4,150 yards only once. His lack of prolific stats isn't totally his fault, though. The Raiders have failed to surround him with elite offensive talent for most of his career. They've also been one of the most penalized teams over that span.

This season has the potential to be Carr's best yet. He finally has a legit No. 1 wide receiver in DaVante Adams -- arguably the best player at the position. Carr and Adams played together at Fresno State, so there's already a strong connection between them on and off the field. Adams and Hunter Renfrow at wide receiver, plus top-tier tight end Darren Waller give Carr plenty of weapons to target in the passing attack.

Don't forget the Raiders also hired an offensive-minded head coach in Josh McDaniels.

All the pieces are in place for a career-best season from Carr.

Projected draft round: 6th

1. Gabriel Davis, WR, Buffalo Bills (Bye Week: 7)

Davis is on so many of these "breakout stars" lists that expectations for the Bills wide receiver are going to be pretty high come Week 1.

The most recent memory of Davis is driving a lot of his hype. He caught eight passes for 201 yards and four touchdowns against the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Divisional Round playoff game the Bills lost. It was an incredible performance.

Davis had a respectable regular season, too, tallying 35 receptions for 549 yards and six touchdowns as the No. 4 option most weeks. Here's an interesting stat: 37.4 percent of his catches went for 20-plus yards, which was the highest percentage in the league.

With veteran wideouts Emmanuel Sanders and Cole Beasley departing Buffalo over the offseason, the stage is set for Davis to play a much larger role in a Bills offense led by elite quarterback Josh Allen.

Projected draft round: 4th

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